EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WKBN) — Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified in front of a Pennsylvania State Senate Committee at 10 a.m. Monday.
As part of his opening testimony, Shaw, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern since May 2022, stated, “I would like to express how deeply sorry I am for the impact this derailment has had on the citizens of East Palestine and Pennsylvania. … I am determined to make this right.”
Shaw cited the NTSB preliminary report, stating the crew of the train was operating it below the speed limit and in an approved manner. He also said the NTSB did not indicate train length had anything to do with the derailment in East Palestine, something that faced some speculation in previous discussions. Shaw said he reached out to the heads of the two largest unions and asked for their help in regard to improving safety in the future.
“We strive to make our safety culture the best in the industry,” Shaw said. “The events in the last several months is not who we are.”
In response to an accusation by an East Palestine resident who stated she was asked to sign a form waiving her legal rights, Shaw stated the form was “used for standard access to property had nothing to do with legal rights with this accident.” He stated the legal language was then removed and that Norfolk Southern made it very clear to residents that they could receive aid with no strings attached.
When pressed about who gave the go-ahead on the “controlled release” of chemicals, Shaw stated he believed the decision was made jointly by “Unified Command” aligned with the Incident Commander, fire chief, and Gov. Mike DeWine in conjunction with Gov. Josh Shapiro.
The Unified Command consists of state, local and federal authorities from both Pennsylvania and Ohio, according to Shaw. When asked, Shaw continued to reiterate the “Unified Command” made the decision to approve the controlled release. He stated the Incident Commander, in this case, the East Palestine fire chief, took the lead. When asked, Shaw stated he was unsure if an environmental toxicologist was part of the team that made this decision.
Shaw supported the decision for the controlled burn, stating repeatedly that it was the right choice and a success. He said if they had not released the pressure, an uncontrolled burn could have resulted in shrapnel from the explosion throughout the community.
“I was there. I was on the ground during that, I saw the smoke plume; I know what it looked like. But it was the right decision to make,” Shaw said.
Shaw also stated that it is important to note the controlled burn worked. Sen. Katie Muth stated it was hard to believe the controlled burn worked given the various impacts it has had on the community. She also brought up the point that when an entity does testing they own the data and can choose what to report. Shaw stated he was unaware of this.
“I am committed to environmental remediation. … I am committed to doing what is right for these communities,” Shaw said. “I am going to see this through no matter what happens or what it takes.”
Also testifying Monday was Andrew Whelton, an expert from Purdue University with 20-plus years of experience in helping communities with health risks and natural disasters. His testimony focused on the fact that those conducting testing in East Palestine are not testing for enough chemicals. He said he and his team found chemicals in the creek officials weren’t testing for but were “definitely related to the fire.”
“It’s difficult to determine what the health risks of something are if you aren’t testing for them,” Whelton said. “We are testing for heavy metals … and ions. No one else is testing for that.”
He stated he experienced headaches after visiting the derailment area, as did Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-33).
Whelton also told senators the extent of groundwater contamination is still not known and that extensive testing is needed, especially in areas closest to “ground zero.”
“In other words, the location may be two miles away along a creek. I expect that they should do monthly well testing in perpetuity until they understand how water flows in that area and how long it would take for contamination to get in,” Whelton said.
Last to testify was Robert Comer, a forensic railroad accident investigator. He gave an emotional testimony, expressing frustration with the lack of answers in Shaw’s testimony and the conditions of the track.
“I don’t hear one detail from him [Shaw] about the specifics about what caused this derailment,” Comer said. “Every one of those railcars that was being transferred on February 3 belonged to a bunch of different companies. The big question is why was the vinyl chloride, why were those cars not put in the back of the train?”
He wondered if Norfolk Southern examined the cars, all of which were owned by different companies, and said he didn’t hear about the conditions of specific parts of the cars. He examined and photographed the tracks, and said the wooden ties of the track were in terrible condition. He noted that a significant amount of spikes necessary to hold the plates to the track were missing.
“Why in the world would they be using wooden ties when there are concrete ties? They are twice as strong as wood and they last twice as long,” Comer exclaimed.
He said Shaw and the railroad industry have been trying to cut staff, noting past accidents. “Where is the safety?” He said.
Mastriano said Shaw may be asked back once more information and documents he was unable to provide Monday have been gathered and analyzed.
Shaw was originally subpoenaed to testify earlier this month but was unable to attend. The Pennsylvania Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee had waited weeks for this hearing with him. The last meeting on the derailment was on March 8. Even though Shaw was supposed to testify but didn’t, a lot was discussed.
The committee considered two Senate bills and one resolution. All had overwhelming support.
One of the bills was to establish the Train Derailment Emergency Grant Program.